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Learn to learn: why sleep is crucial to learning

When we sleep, we strengthen the learning of the day (providing we were intently focused on the subject)

Sleep

Sleep is important for so many reasons, but it is particularly crucial for learning. 

The pathway between neurons grows and strengthens tremendously during sleep.

Focusing and working as intently as possible during the day helps to start a new pathway between neurons – the foundation of learning!  


This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.


But that pathway really strengthens during sleep. Signals pass over and over again over the new pathway. This helps to strengthen and broaden the pathways, so it’s easier to think about that subject. 

Shallow learning

But beware: “synaptic janitors” can sweep away dendritic spines if they are not used.

Dendritic spines are a little like lie detectors. The new spines and their synapses only begin growing if a student is really focusing on the new information they want to learn.

Students sometimes think that if they just frown and look seriously at something, that it must mean they are concentrating. It doesn’t.

It is only when students are actively working with the material in their mind that they are pulling out the dendritic spines and starting to form the new connections.

So, for example, just passively looking toward a teacher, or passively letting their eyes run over a page in a book, will not pull those new neural connections out to begin the learning process.

If students don’t review the material they’ve learned soon after they’ve learned it, their little “synaptic janitors” can sweep the new connections away.

Here's a video to explain more.

This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.

Notes by Professor Barbara Oakley and ESIC Business and Marketing School. Videos reproduced with kind permission of the Arizona State University and Professor Barbara Oakley.

For more information, see Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.

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